Saturday, June 25, 2011

Bad boy makes good: Takashi Miike on the border between trash and art

Don't you love it when directors turn out to look
exactly how you thought they would?
(Image: Subway Cinema News)
It's a small satisfaction to see that conventional wisdom is catching up to Takashi Miike, and realizing there's more to him than meets the punctured, fluid-leaking eye. He's reached a milestone with his latest to get a U.S. release, the samurai action-drama 13 Assassins, which has even earned him favorable comparisons with Akira Kurosawa - which has got to be a first with this guy, although as serenely self-confident as he appears to be, I'm sure he knew it was just a matter of time.

Miike's rep in the West has for a long time been based largely on two factors: his ridiculously prolific work habits - most counts credit the 50-year-old director with somewhere around 80 feature films over the past 20 years; and a predilection for outrageous grue and gag-reflex-inducing perversity.  The fact that he's a smart, talented and ambitious, if inevitably uneven, artist, if it gets mentioned at all, comes third (oops, there it happened again).  

The quintessential Miike work in this vein of thinking is probably Ichi the Killer (2001), his manga-based action-splatter-horror-black comedy about the duel between a sexually dysfunctional, crybaby superhero-psycho with razor-soled boots and a slit-mouthed albino gangster-sadomasochist who wields foot-long steel needles. But his filmography also includes output like gentle drama The Bird People in China, children's fantasy The Great Yokai War, and Big Bang Love: Juvenile A, a gorgeously surreal, avant-garde prison story

And even his gross-out pulp is sometimes much more. Ichi turns out to be a pretty brilliant satire and a potent nightmare (am I the only one who's noticed that it's a sendup of the Batman vs. Joker mythos?  Ah, I see that I'm not.) His booby-trapped romance Audition is his other most notorious film for its rug-pulling endurance-test finale, but taken as a whole, it's a deviously controlled critique of Japanese male attitudes - and one of his few films up to now to get the credit it deserves for intelligence and seriousness.

All of which is to say that, unlike many of the reviewers who've praised it, I don't really see 13 Assassins as a major break with his previous work, although it is another step in his evolution into a more "respectable," "mainstream" filmmaker. Its level of craft shouldn't surprise anyone who's seen his visual skills and stylistic versatility, and the snarling contempt for the hypocrisies and half-hidden dysfunctions of the respectable mainstream has been in his work for a long time, although I've never before seen him express it this overtly.

Right down to its title, it seems patterned remarkably closely on the one, the only Seven Samurai, although Miike's film is officially a remake of a different, 1963 movie - so maybe that was the ripoff.  At any rate, 13 Assassins is a good demonstration of the different nuances different treatments can bring to similar material. It's often noted that Kurosawa's masterpiece subverted the feudal traditions of the chambara genre by showing its aristocratic warriors humbling themselves to fight alongside peasants against members of their own class, but Miike's film goes quite a bit further. In fact, I'm not aware of another chambara that attacks the entire samurai caste so directly.

(Image: Magnet Releasing & Peliculas a Fondo)

The lead villain is Naritsugu, the sort of fellow who, under normal circumstances, would get arrested when his backyard or basement was found to be full of shallow graves. But he has the good fortune to be a nobleman in mid-19th century Japan, and moreover, the younger half-brother of the Shogun, the country's supreme ruler - so he gets to indulge his taste for torture, rape and murder more or less openly and with impunity. 

The sins of the powerful may be embodied in one larger-than-life character, but Daisuke Tengan's screenplay goes out of its way to point the finger at the entire feudal system.  It plays up the ineffectual quailings of Lord Naritsugu's entourage as they avert their eyes when he, say, uses an entire family as archery practice targets. It shows the upper-crusters conferring as to what can be done about him and concluding with a sigh, "Nothing - he's our lord, after all." It even gives the butcher himself a self-justifying speech about how the right to do as they please with underlings is the bedrock of the samurais' whole system. Eventually the Shogun makes clear that he not only won't control his sibling but plans to raise him into higher, national political circles (I think it's left unspoken that Naritsugu could be in line for the shogun's seat himself someday). At that point, a few men set in motion a secret plot to take the psycho out, a bit of skullduggery even the most scrupulously ethical viewer should be able to get behind by that point in the movie. 

All of this is set at the tail end of Japan's millennia-long feudal era, like many samurai sagas.  Instead of the usual sentimental elegy for lost tradition, Miike and Tengan make a clear statement of "Good riddance!" The heroes know they're helping to symbolically write the epitaph for their class and their way of life, but they regard the fact with stoic pride. This is perhaps anachronistic, but realism, as usual, isn't Miike's aim - this time, he's after blunt power and telling historical analogy (based on the rest of his oeuvre, Miike doesn't seem to think Japan has changed all that much since those days). 

Of course, no film starring the reliably great Koji Yakusho should be reviewed without giving him his own paragraph. Playing Shinzaemon, the dutiful warrior brought out of retirement to lead the assassins, he invests his too-good-to-be-true character with the expected dignity, but also warmth, humor and a core of righteous fury. "Is there no mercy?" he breathes huskily in an early scene, gazing upon one of Naritsugu's mutilated victims with wet eyes, turning a routine line into a heart-catching moment, and instantly making the audience's emotional investment in the story revolve around him.
Koji Yakusho embodies Stanislavski's famous dictum that a great actor
should be at once avuncular and badass, especially while covered in karo syrup.
(Image: Magnet Releasing & Y's Guy)
Lest the above make 13 Assassins sound like fancied-up lima beans, rest assured that Miike hasn't abandoned his instincts for diverting and shocking us groundlings. This is a thrilling, blood-and-thunder action movie, especially in its final act. The extended climax, a 13-on-200 battle in a village turned into a booby-trapped fortress, rarely loses dramatic and visual clarity, despite its virtually non-stop 45 minutes of mayhem, and is so covered in red goo and tattered prosthetic flesh that I'm amazed the movie got away with an R rating. I overuse the term "jaw-dropping," but seriously... you'll have to dig your lower teeth out of the earth's mantle. And I don't want to hear any griping about how supposedly gratuitous the savagery is - the audience has earned this catharsis after a long buildup of rage, in a work of both outrageous entertainment and towering moral force.

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